Literary Quote of the Month

“For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)—they are experiences,” … Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov... Makings for a Controversial & Intense Reading Group Discussion

"Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul, Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta."

The opening line of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is poetry off the tongue. The book is filled with lyrical prose, humor and deep sadness. But the subject matter is what overshadows what has been called one of the greatest love stories of our time. As evident in my reading groups discussion of the book this week, there was a deep hatred for this book, based on the subject matter. Humbert Humbert, the protagonist of Lolita, simple stated is a pedophile. Lolita, controversial, shocking and famous, gives us an inside look at the inner workings of a man who is obsessed with little girls. Girls on the verge of puberty. Humbert Humbert , a middle aged english professor and scholar, with what seems to be a modest but limitless income, finds himself in fictional Ramsdale, renting a room from single mom, Charlotte Haze, whose 12 year-old daughter, Lo, in Humberts mind, seems to be the reincarnation of Humberts childhood sweetheart, Annabel Lee, who died before he could realize his full love for her.

It was the same child- the same frail, honey-hued shoulders, the same silky supple bare back, the same chestnut head of hair. A polka-dotted black kerchief tied around her chest hid from my aging ape eyes, but not from the gaze of young memory, the juvenile breasts I had fondled one immortal day.

For Humbert it is love at first sight, when he sees 12 year-old Lo, whose real name is Dolores. That is "love" is his mind. Because that is all we allowed to know, what Humbert Humbert pens in his "memoir" Lolita. This "confessional" style of writing, by a man who could admittedly be mad, allows Nabokov to play with the reader with allusions to other works of literature, Edgar Allan Poe being a favorite, double entendres, and anagrams. But what makes this book a literary classic is lost when the reader can't get beyond the heinous immoral raping of a young girl. Most of the sex is only alluded to, but there is no doubt what is happening.

The story starts with a forward by fictional Dr. John Jay, Jr. who lays before you some of the horror you are about to read. Nabokov lets the reader know that contrary to however Humbert Humbert portrays himself or makes excuses for his behavior, Humbert is a horrible person. But, and maybe this is Nabokov tooting his own horn, the writing of his "confession" is "magical"...

No doubt, he is horrible, his is abject, he is a shining example of moral leprosy, a mixture of ferocity and jocularity that betrays supreme misery perhaps, but is not conducive to attractiveness... A desperate honesty that throbs through his confession does not absolve him from sins of a diabolical cunning. He is abnormal. He is not a gentleman. But how magically his singing violin can conjure up a tendresse, a compassion for Lolita that makes us entranced with the book while abhorring its author!

Humberts obsession with Lolita, the object of his desire, leads to murder, a 2 year road trip, paranoia, ultimately escape and revenge - a story that goes beyond what is always in the back of your mind as you read Lolita. In the end, even though Lolita finally does escape her tormentor, she never is able to get back what was lost to her - a normal childhood. Can you enjoy the prose and humor of Lolita, when you know of Lo's daily torment? Is Nabokov's proof of the accomplishment of his writing made by the point that the reader is stirred to such intense feelings?

Even though my reading group varied in the intensity of their feelings for this book, Lolita made for an interesting and thought provoking discussion. Since Mr. Nabokov tells the reader point blank in the epilogue that there is no "purpose" to his book other than "getting rid of the book", I wonder if the real purpose might be that in causing so much controversy by writing Lolita, that he wanted to make us better readers by shaking up our sensibilities.

6 comments:

Michelle said...

There really is so much to discuss with this book. I read it this semester in university and even did an essay on it. It's so disturbing content wise (I felt) but so beautifully written. I must have read the first chapter more than a dozen times. Gorgeous writing.

Suzanne said...

Hi Michelle,
I felt the same way- disturbing content, but so beautifully written. During our reading group discussion, most couldn't appreciate the writing because they were so outraged at the subject matter. I would have loved to hear your professor's thoughts about Lolita, it must have been quite interesting! Thanks for sharing!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I started listening to the audio book several years ago, but thought I'd prefer reading a print version. Loved reading your post.

Suzanne said...

Hi Diane,
I heard an excerpt of Jeremy Irons reading Lolita and thought the sound of his voice was seductive. But I only heard the first pages. Thanks for sharing! I may have to rethink buying that audiobook.

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Hindi SMS said...

A must read and a literary classic. Nabokov represents emotions and thoughts with mathematical visual precision. You can feel that each word is weighed against the rest of the sentence, against the rest of the paragraph against the rest of the novel, following the strict tone of the entire piece. Unity is one of the main features of art.
Every page gets laughs.. sometimes its laugh out loud funny. A delight to read..

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